South Africa’s meat classification system is outdated and must be changed, says Professor Frikkie Neser of the Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the University of the Free State. “South Africa’s meat classification system is 30 years old and has not kept up with scientific research or the need to reward farmers for various qualities in meat, including taste and tenderness. It also needs to accommodate and equitably reward various production practices, including producing beef off the veld,” says Prof Frikkie Neser who is particularly concerned about the impact on indigenous beef cattle production.

The system is currently based on two main criteria – age and fatness. This means that pre-two-tooth animals are classified as A-grade; one to two-tooths are classified as AB; from three- to six-tooth they drop to B-grade and from full mouth onwards they are C-grade.

“A lot of excellent, peer-reviewed research has been done on beef quality, such as the research conducted in the early 2000s as a partnership between South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for beef,” he explains.

Outstanding meat tenderness qualities in indigenous breeds

“This research looked at the frequency of genes associated with meat tenderness in Southern Africa’s indigenous Sanga breeds (Nguni, Afrikaner, Drakensberger and Tuli). It was found that they have a high percentage of tenderness genes and outstanding meat tenderness qualities.

“Research by Dr Philip Strydom of the ARC also indicates that there is little or no difference between the meat quality of indigenous and European/British breeds, as is sometimes claimed. Yet the current system discriminates against the indigenous breeds, which are early maturing and ideally suited to being marketed off the veld, without the need for heavy supplementation.”

AB and older animals of all breeds are further accredited in various parts of the world as having extremely tasty meat. “But the grading system does not accommodate this even though the tenderness and taste can be as good if not better than younger, A-grade animals,” Frikkie continues.

ABs should be incorporated in the A-grade price range

He believes that ABs should be incorporated into the A-grade price range. This way it becomes viable for not only the indigenous breeds, but also all the other breeds and crossbreeds to be marketed off the veld, as an alternative marketing channel to the feedlots.

But this is not happening and there is no price reward for keeping your animals on the veld longer.

The stats speak for themselves: 83% of beef slaughtered in the formal sector is A-grade.

The meat classification system has not kept up with the times

“It is extremely concerning that the meat classification system has not kept up with the times and the need for various systems of sustainably produced meat,” he says.

Beef production has been hard hit by this and many South African farmers have given up farming with purebred indigenous breeds like the Nguni because of the price discrimination of R2 to R6 less per kilogram paid by the feedlots for Nguni weaners and certain other indigenous breeds.

“What this means is that the numbers of indigenous cattle will increasingly decline, which is putting the indigenous breeds at risk,” adds Frikkie.

Feed indigenous breeds a cooler ration

“All the indigenous breeds are early maturing in terms of putting on fat early. Indigenous animals also tend to put on fat too quickly in a conventional feedlot system; hence they are not that popular with the feedlot owners. However, put them in a feedlot where they are fed a cooler ration, in other words, less energy and more protein and roughage, and they perform wonderfully,” Frikkie explains.

Marketing straight from the veld

Having said that, he hastens to add that this is not making the most of a breed like the Nguni, which was not bred for feedlots: “It was bred as an outstanding, early maturing animal with outstanding meat quality that should be marketed straight from the veld.”

Frikkie further believes that mature cow weights of animals that are kept under extensive conditions needs to change: “We need medium-framed animals for off-the-veld production because large animals often don’t do well in the off the veld system, unless they are heavily supplemented.”

Breeding animals for climate change

“It is also critical to bear in mind that we are living in an era of climate change and that adaptation will become an extremely important quality in the future. The indigenous breeds are the answer to climate change because of, for example, their special ability to adapt to heat, which will be particularly important in the harsher, fringe areas, such as northern KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, the northern Cape and the Karoo.”

The ARC’s Dr Michiel Scholtz concurs: “We need to look at breeding the right breed and weight of animal for climate change,” he says.

“A cow of 400 – 450kgs producing a calf of around 180 – 200kgs annually has a lower carbon and water footprint than a larger animal. I emphasise ‘annually’ because fertility is key. If the current national commercial calving percentage of 65% can be increased to 80% in combination with appropriate size, this would significantly reduce the footprint.”

The optimal size cow for different geographical areas

Two Master’s students at the ARC are currently working on the optimal size cow for different geographical areas, where the amount of grass available and the type of environment determines cow size. The first results should be available by the end of this year.

Michiel believes that structured crossbreeding in the commercial sector is underutilised in South Africa. If smaller-framed indigenous and composite breeds are mated with beefier breeds or British and European breeds, the efficiency at weaning can increase by up to 40%.

This could also contribute to the future existence of the indigenous breeds, but it will only make headway if farmers are adequately compensated in a future, revised classification system.

A number of problems with the current classification system

An ARC task team was appointed in 2009 to investigate the system, which led to the November 2014 symposium at the ARC in Pretoria. At the symposium the Red Meat Producers Organisation (RPO) reiterated that there are a number of problems with the current system.

One of these is that consumers and retailers often do not understand the system, which calls for concerted consumer and retailer education. Labeling of meat products is also of concern, as consumers and retailers need to understand what they are buying.

For example, retailers currently pay less for the more creamy-coloured or yellow fat of grass-fed, veld-raised animals. Many retailers are not aware that creamier/yellower fat is scientifically proven as being healthier, with the right balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and that all grass-fed, veld-raised or naturally fed animals, across all age groups, have creamier/yellower fat.

Why hasn’t the system already improved?

“It’s a very difficult question to answer as to why, given all the research that has already gone into this issue of the meat classification system and consumer education, that it hasn’t already improved,” says Frikkie.

“All the role players in the meat industry would naturally need to agree on a new system, and that includes the feedlots as it would impact on their profitability. No agreement was reached at that symposium other than to organise another workshop with all role players attending, so maybe there is still hope.”